Features and Reviews
Wally Rose Remembered
The Man Who Sparked Ragtime's Rebirth
in the Early 1940s
Oct. 2, 1913–Jan. 12, 1997
(The following article by Rod Biensen was part of a handout provided by the author at his seminar on Wally Rose, presented at the Sedalia, Missouri ragtime festival on June 4, 2005. We thank Ellen Avak for sending us a copy, which is here reprinted with the author's kind permission. —Bill Mitchell)
Wally Rose was born in Oakland, California. His family lived for a time in Hawaii but by the time Wally reached third grade they had returned to the San Francisco area. During these early years, Wally started taking piano lessons mainly because of his mother's encouragement and became fascinated with playing the piano. Wally always gave credit to his mother for her encouragement.
Wally was aware of ragtime during this period but it wasn't until he purchased a copy of "Dill Pickles Rag" (at the age of 12) did he become fascinated with ragtime. He found all the piano rags he could during a time when there wasn't much ragtime music in the stores. Wally was particularly fond of Scott Joplin rags with their great melodies and harmonic directions where no one else had ventured. He continued his piano studies into Lockwood Junior High and Castlemont High school in the bay area. After he graduated in 1930 he began performing with many dance bands aboard cruise ships that went around the world. He also when in the bay area performed with many dance bands and also had many solo gigs.
In the late 1930s Wally heard about a place called the Big Bear Tavern where jazz musicians went to jam and have a good time. These sessions often went all night until the sun came up. There Wally met Lu Wattters and many other musicians who wanted to play jazz music of the twenties. By December 1939, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band was performing at the Dawn Club, located at 20 Annie Place in San Francisco. By 1940, Lu Watters asked Wally to become a permanent band member.
As Wally developed his band performing skills, he was often featured performing ragtime with the band's rhythm section and this was always well received. He knew how to play great rhythm piano when the band was performing but also knew exactly what to do during his solo ragtime performances.
On December 19, 1941, the first recording of the band was done. At Lu Watters's insistence, one of the eight selections featured Wally performing the "Black and White Rag" with the band's rhythm section. It should be mentioned that Lu met a lot of resistance from the personnel at Jazz Man Records who did the recording and who wanted eight full band tracks. They said ragtime wouldn't sell. They ended up being totally wrong as the rag was one of the most popular reasons the record was purchased. People in the bay area were going ragtime crazy in the middle of the swing era!
Lu Watters was a great promoter of band ragtime as well and with his talented pianist who knew ragtime so well, they recorded at this session the "Maple Leaf Rag," "At a Georgia Camp Meeting," and "Smokey Mokes." Wally continued recording with the band and Lu always had Wally feature ragtime on some selections.
Both Lu and Wally were great proponents to appeal to dancers with their music. Because the vast majority of the public wanted to dance, the band did everything it could to appeal to the dancers with their strong rhythmic drive. Wally was quoted during a 1980 interview: "Music and dancing go together—it's the only way the public can express themselves. The trouble with bebop is the customers were supposed to sit quietly and listen. How can you do that when people want to get up and move around? It's like holding a dam back." During the band's entire career, dance floors were packed.
Wally stayed with the band until the war altered the lives of everyone. Wally ended up in the U.S. Navy during the war and most of the rest of the band entered military service.
After returning from the Navy, by 1946 the band formed again and started playing at the Dawn Club and then a year later at Hambone Kelly's. During this time there were more band recordings and Wally continued to be featured playing ragtime. He was on all of the band recordings until the band broke up in 1950. Two members of the band left to form their own bands (Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey) and that was the beginning of the end for the Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band.
After that, Wally played for a time with the Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey bands and continued to record ragtime. He continued his career mostly in the bay area and would often perform with these two bands in addition to his solo performances. Wally composed three rags during this period and they are "Ed's Echoes," "First Step On-Step," and "Wedding Cakewalk."
Wally Rose died on January 12, 1997 of cancer. He will always be remembered by ragtime fans as virtually the only person along with the Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band who single handedly kept ragtime popular during a time when there was virtually none being performed. His influence on reviving ragtime in 1941 with the recording of the "Black and White Rag" was enormous. He sparked the ragtime revival that has lasted to this very day.
MORE ON WALLY ROSE
By Bill Mitchell
Reading Rod Biensen's notes on Wally Rose brought back pleasant memories of this influential musician.
Half a century or more ago, he and Ralph Sutton were probably the best known ragtime pianists in the country. (Sutton always hated to be typecast as a ragtime player, however.) Rose was a classically trained pianist, a performing artist who also gave piano instruction. (The late Peter Clute was one of his most eminent pupils, and when Wally dropped out of the Turk Murphy band in the mid 1950s, it was Pete who replaced him.) Wally's technical ability enabled him to tackle the most difficult rags with ease, and he was not averse to embellishing the scores of the classic rags and "thickening the texture" of the sparer, less complex ones. He had a style all his own, a style that influenced not only Clute, but Robbie Rhodes and, to a lesser degree, your editor, who heard Wally's "Black and White Rag" on the radio as a teenager, and then heard him live with Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band in 1946.
As a person, Wally was affable and outgoing. I met him two or three times when listening to Watters and/or Murphy when vacationing in San Francisco. When my "Ragtime Recycled" LP came out in 1972, I sent Wally a complementary copy, and he responded with a very nice letter, saying how much he liked my choices and my playing, commenting on particular numbers. Needless to say, that letter is one of my prized possessions.